This afternoon’s Football League Cup Final proved to be a game too far for Bradford City. This was a match that proved to be as one-sided as we might have expected their epic wins against Wigan Athletic, Arsenal or Aston Villa to be, but the Yorkshire club’s supporters can return home this evening proud of the way that they and their team carried themselves today. Amid the many eulogies that will be offered for their efforts this afternoon, however, one aspect of this match might well be relatively under-represented, and that is just how polished Swansea City’s performance was. This afternoon, the Wembley crowd witnessed a display of consummate professionalism from the Premier League club which demonstrated – as if we haven’t seen enough of that in the Premier League over the last couple of years or so – the extent to which Swansea City Football Club has transformed itself over the last decade or so.
For all of the talk of Bradford City’s achievement in reaching this stage of the competition, though, we should probably pause this evening to consider just how far Swansea City have come over the last few years or so. This is a club which has consistently made great decisions in every aspect of how it is managed in recent years. At any stage over the last three or four years or so, the club’s ascent towards the top half of the Premier League might have been halted by the normal trials and tribulations which come with being a smaller club on the rise. Roberto Martinez, whose shrewd management had kick-started the club’s rise in the first place, departed for Wigan Athletic in the summer of 2009. His replacement, Paulo Sousa, departed for Leicester City a year later, and Brendan Rodgers, who took the club into the Premier League, was persuaded to move to Liverpool after two years in charge of the club last summer.
Every time that Swansea City have lost a manager over this time, they have picked themselves up, made an inspired choice to replace him and got on with it. So it was last summer with the appointment of Michael Laudrup, a man who, in spite of having ten years managerial experience had no Premier League experience and was, therefore, an unknown quantity to the insular English. Laudrup has picked up the baton from Brendan Rodgers and continued what has started to become a tradition for this club of winning, and doing so with a flourish. Perhaps today was the end of an age of relative innocence, a moment which will prove to be a turning point. Swansea City are fast becoming an established Premier League club now, and they are this season’s first winners of a major domestic trophy. The first battle, of getting into the Premier League, getting a foot in that door and keeping it there, has been won. Maintaining it will be another challenge altogether, and with it comes with new set of challenges which carry risks of their own.
One of these new challenges will be the return of European football to the club after a break of just over twenty years. Swansea City appeared in the European Cup Winners Cup on seven occasions between 1961 and 1992 and they only won one tie over two legs, although they did this in style by beating Sliema Wanderers of Malta by seventeen goals to nil over two legs in the 1982/83 competition (including a twelve-nil win in the first leg at The Vetch Field) before losing to Paris St Germain in the Second Round of the competition. Having the opportunity to play European football adds an extra ball to the juggling act of running a Premier League football club, and the challenge of seeking to compete in the domestic cups, maintaining a reasonable position in the league and hoping to manage a run against some of Europe’s grandest names will be a considerable one for Laudrup – presuming that the manager resists the inevitable attention that will come with his achievements at the Liberty Stadium this season.
Further stability has been added to this by the club’s financial position. The club was rescued from extinction in 2003 by a consortium which included the club’s supporters trust, which till owns a twenty per cent shareholding in the club, and losses of £8.2m which came about as a result of the push for a place in the Premier League in 2011 were wiped out by the announcement of a £14.6m profit at the end of their first season in the Premier League. With television revenues set to shoot up again next season and the club’s Premier League position already all bar mathematically secured for the start of that new bonanza, the club finds itself not only as a standard bearer for the Premier League in terms of the way in which it goes about its business on the pitch, but away from it as well. Over the course of ten years, this is a club which has transformed itself from being a symbol of everything that was wrong about the the way that football clubs in Britain are run to being an example of much that could be right about it, if only the owners of clubs could show the imagination to make it so.
One near-constant throughout that period has been the club’s waif-like midfielder Leon Britton. When Britton arrived at the club on loan form West Ham United in 2003, Swansea City was fighting for its very existence. Having made the loan deal permanent, Britton would stay with the club for seven years, before leaving for a brief and unhappy spell with Sheffield United in 2010, after which he returned to Swansea to become an instrumental figure in the club’s rise to and consolidation in the Premier League. This is a player who might never have believed that he would end up playing in a Wembley cup final in front of 83,000 people and winning by five clear goals to send his club into European football the following season, but then again, who would? Much of the story of the last ten years of the history of Swansea City Football Club has had the quality of a fairytale about it, and it doesn’t feel this evening as if its final chapter has quite been written yet.
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